Mixon enjoys a long history with Washington, going back to 1998 when he competed at the annual Safeway (now Giant) Barbecue Battle. Along with his team, Jack's Old South, he's won 13 grand championships at the Battle and nearly 200 grand championships overall, he said. “Washington barbecue fans have always been there, even before I was on TV,” Mixon said in a telephone interview. “They’ve always embraced me.”
As a barbecue competition champion opening a restaurant, he traverses a well-trod path. Some circuit winners -- Mike Mills, Tuffy Stone, Melissa Cookston -- have established well-regarded eateries. But several others parlayed their victories into middling restaurants, unable to recreate the cooking that competition barbecue demands. (Of course, there is one other possibility: Perhaps the food served at a team’s restaurant is, whether a faithful recreation or not, merely mediocre.)
Mixon, 54, maintains that the Old Town restaurant will provide a taste of the real thing, with such menu items as his signature cupcake chicken (seasoned and sauced thighs trimmed to fit in a cupcake pan), peach barbecue beans and baby back mac and cheese. “The rubs and sauces that we’re using is my competition stuff,” he said. “The recipes will be all mine.”
One significant difference will be the cooker. Rather than working with the type of all-wood smokers he uses in competitions, Mixon is installing a 1,500-pound pellet cooker. Pellets -- small cylindrical tubes made of compressed food-grade hardwood sawdust -- are notorious for not providing a deep, penetrating smoke. “It’s hard to get good smoke from pellets, but we figured it out,” he said. “I’ve been cooking on them for 12 months and making sure everything is right.”
This isn’t Mixon’s first attempt at a restaurant. Three years ago, as part of a team of investors, he opened Pride and Joy in Miami and was working on opening another in New York. But in August 2013, after leaving the venture, Mixon sued his partners for trademark infringement, breach of contract and misappropriation of name and likeness. (The case was dismissed in 2015.)
He also once franchised his competition team’s name, Jack’s Old South, to a restaurateur in Georgia. “It was a one-shot deal I did about 10 or 12 years ago,” he said. “I would never do it again.”
Washington, he believes, will be different from his previous efforts. He cites his partner, Joe Corey, as the reason. Corey, who has judged scores of barbecue contests over the years, tried repeatedly to get Mixon to open a restaurant in the area. “It seemed the stars aligned this year,” Mixon said.
Mixon’s foray into the restaurant business is the latest move in a career that has taken him from a small town in Georgia to a reputation as one of the biggest names in barbecue. Not bad for a kid who learned to cook barbecue from his father, Jack, when he was 9-years-old.
Jack taught his son how to barbecue the old way – burning wood to embers and shoveling them beneath the meat. “That’s how people did it for 200 years,” Mixon said.
Asked how his father, who is deceased, would react to his using a pellet cooker, Mixon was unequivocal: He wouldn't be happy. “Because I’m not doing it the way he showed me," Mixon said. "He said, ‘If you don’t do it the right way, you don’t do it.’ I give reverence to that. But I’ll tell ya something, that’s hard work.” (For consistency and cost considerations, he said the restaurant needed to use a less intensive method of cooking.)
So what would his father think of his upcoming restaurant's barbecue? He hesitated for a second, then answered. “I think he would enjoy it.”